By Maryjean Wall
So. Two guys walk into a bar. Over a couple of Bud Lights, one asks the other to name the strangest Kentucky Derby of them all, adding: “No fair picking this year’s. That’s too easy because we all know it’s coming up the first Saturday in September instead of the first Saturday in May.”
The wheels of thought begin grinding like heavy machinery. The guy spinning the cogs of memory — hey, gimme another Bud! — mulls the question with great deliberation. Then in a flash of inarguable conviction he shouts out his answer: “1979.”
“Spectacular Bid won it like a 3-5 shot should,” he tells his buddy. “But this wasn’t the strange part. The weirdness was back in the field, 47 lengths behind Spectacular Bid. Great Redeemer was so far back he nearly ran over a couple of photographers crossing the track.” They’d thought the race was over.
A couple of news photographers on the grandstand side thought the Derby indeed was over after Lot o’ Gold, the ninth-placed horse, ran past. They couldn’t see any more horses coming behind him so they started across. Then suddenly, straggling in, came Great Redeemer into their path, 25 lengths behind Lot o’ Gold and still running his race. The jockey yelled at them to get out of the way. It was a miracle no one was injured or killed.
Great Redeemer’s Derby certainly ranks among the strangest because he finished the race as the most talked-about last-place runner. That’s quite a feat, since no one ever pays attention to the horse who finishes last in the Derby. But then again, there were few Derbies like this one. From front to back.
At the front end was Spectacular Bid, inarguably one of the great ones from modern times. His war camp was a strange one, from his relatively inexperienced jockey, Ronnie Franklin, 19, to his trainer, Bud Delp. Delp was a guy who’d had some nice stakes-winning horses in recent years but whose origins were the claiming races on the wrong side of the tracks. People still thought of him as a claiming horse trainer.
Delp was brash, he was mouthy, and Kentuckians were unwilling to accept him when he showed up from his home turf of Maryland. He annoyed them because they knew Spectacular Bid was a good one – one they didn’t have for themselves. Worse, Delp couldn’t keep his mouth shut about this fact. He began calling Spectacular Bid “The Greatest Horse Ever to Look Through a Bridle.”
But Spectacular Bid was legit. Before arriving in Kentucky, he had won the Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths over Lot o’ Gold. He did so the hard way, with jockey Franklin steering him unnecessarily all over the track. Delp was so angry he’d turned purple when the horse reached the winner’s circle. He was screaming at Franklin. He called him an idiot. He kept screaming at Franklin all the way back to the jockeys’ quarters. The Greatest Horse Ever to Look Through a Bridle had possibly run double the distance with Franklin’s kamikaze ride and if anything, this might have taken an extra race out of him.
But no. When Spectacular Bid reached Keeneland for his final Derby preparations he appeared unaffected by the strange race in Florida. One Keeneland morning, Delp sent Bid through a blazing fast workout, a work so brilliant that Delp was crowing by the gap as he waited for Spectacular Bid to come off the track. “Bring on Man o’ War,” Delp was shouting to everyone who could hear.
Well, this was an etiquette lapse. Never in Kentucky should you compare Man o’ War to another horse because Man o’ War owns sainthood in the Bluegrass state. The locals were shocked. Their response was to begin muttering among themselves that Delp had a sore horse in Spectacular Bid.
Meantime, Spectacular Bid rolled through yet another winning race, taking down Keeneland’s marquee Derby prep, the Blue Grass Stakes, by seven lengths over rival Lot o’ Gold. But Delp wasn’t making any friends.
Fast forward to Derby week at Churchill Downs. Delp was on edge with the pressure of having the favorite. He went over the edge when this maiden named Great Redeemer entered at the final possible moment and drew the post position next to Spectacular Bid. Understandably Delp feared that the inexperienced maiden might veer into his horse leaving the gate, forcing The Greatest Horse Ever to Look Through a Bridle to lose all chance in the race of his life. But he could do nothing to keep Great Redeemer out of the Derby.
The week would have been weird even without Great Redeemer. One morning the media were gathered around LeRoy Jolley, who on his best days was a reluctant and ungracious interview subject, despite the bonhomie he displayed in his 1976 commercial for Miller Lite. In fact, Jolley really disliked the press. Generally, he had nothing to say no matter how badly writers needed a quote. A Derby spirit of generosity must have settled on Jolley this one particular morning because against all expectations, he began chatting with reporters who were looking for a few wise words from Jolley about General Assembly’s prospects in the race.
General Assembly was a well-regarded son of Secretariat, perhaps the best colt Secretariat had sired to date, and you could hardly ignore the cachet of Secretariat who had won the 1973 Triple Crown. Now here was Jolley, parsing sound bites when along came a sportswriter who was obviously unfamiliar with the way of horses. He sought Jolley’s opinion with a question that brought the interview to an abrupt halt: would Secretariat recognize General Assembly as his son? Meaning, would he be able to pick him out of a crowd? Jolley shut down. He turned and disappeared into his tack room. If you hadn’t been there for Jolley quotes that morning, you weren’t going to get any the rest of the week.
Delp, on the other hand, was effusive as he ratcheted up his bragging. Churchill Downs took Derby entries on Thursday morning back then, treating the event just like any other day for any other race, without pageantry or a big crowd. Nonetheless it didn’t take long for word to spread through the barn area like a forest on fire: there had been a last-minute entry from a horse who obviously didn’t belong.
Great Redeemer became the talk of the track. This maiden had lost his six lifetime starts, all in his 3-year-old season, by 85 lengths. In that era the Derby did not have a points system for qualifying to get in the starting gate so if the gate had room, you could get in. Most horse owners did not allow their Derby dreams to take them to this extreme.
Great Redeemer’s owner was different. Dr. James Mohamed of San Antonio, Texas, had purchased Great Redeemer for a mere $2,100 as a 2-year-old and thought he had a good one, despite those 85-length losses. More, Dr. Mohamed believed in an obscure system he used to identify stamina in a horse. According to this system, Great Redeemer qualified on stamina, while Spectacular Bid and most of the others did not. For weeks, Dr. Mohamed had been taking out advertisements in the racing publications to promote his system. Now here he was, putting his $7,500 entry fee on the line to put his own horse in the race. Mohamed’s hopes had been uplifted when Great Redeemer ran third in the Derby Trial.
But soon after entry in the Derby, Mohamed’s trainer, James E. James, promptly resigned. “I can’t go through with it,” James told Sports Illustrated. Unfazed, owner Mohamed flew to Churchill Downs, took out a Kentucky trainer’s license (he previously had held trainer’s licenses in a few other states) and saddled the horse himself in this 105th Kentucky Derby. He had obtained the riding services of one Richard DePass, a jockey of some local renown who had ridden in the Derby once previously. DePass said he figured, “what the heck. I’ll do it.” (After the race he was calling Great Redeemer a donkey.)
Those who pay attention to breeding had already noted that Great Redeemer’s sire was none other than Holy Land, the only horse ever to fall down in the Kentucky Derby. This occurred nine years previously on the far turn. The accident put jockey Hector Pilar in the hospital for nearly a year. Now Holy Land was back in the form of his son, Great Redeemer, perhaps to avenge his unfortunate past when he fell and failed to finish. Things just got stranger and stranger as the time ticked down to the race.
On the walk from the backside, Delp kept hollering “Go bet! You can’t lose!” to the crowd.
Things started looking really strange, even shocking, when Great Redeemer got his head in front of Spectacular Bid in the Derby. He was fifth and Spectacular Bid was sixth at the half-mile call. But Bid was only beginning to warm his engines and came from 10 lengths back to win by almost three.
The rest was history – and would have been Triple Crown history had not Preakness and Derby-winning Bid lost the Belmont Stakes. Delp blamed a safety pin stuck in the horse’s hoof for that loss. Few believed him. Especially not in that season when everyone seemed to have trouble recognizing reality. Jockey Franklin had his own problems, caught in a drug bust in a parking lot at Disneyland for possession of cocaine.
Great Redeemer’s sad story continued well after the Derby. Mohamed blamed the last-place finish on a broken bone in the horse’s leg, although he could not produce evidence that the horse had been injured. He sent the horse on to Laurel Park in Maryland. Four months following the Derby, Great Redeemer met misfortune there: he was stabbed with a knife or some sharp instrument while in his stall. Mohammed said he found a four-inch wound in the horse’s side. By December of 1979 Mohammed had sold Great Redeemer for $2,500, making a $400 profit. The horse eventually won his first race in 1980 as a 4-year-old.
Great Redeemer came under a variety of ownerships over the years before Bob and Diane King acquired him for one of their clients. They described Great Redeemer’s appearance as weak and thin and with open sores on his body. He was by now a gelding. The Kings restored his health with a lot of food and loving care. Bob King said the horse hated the race track. Well, duh. When Great Redeemer was 8 years old Diane King began fox-hunting with him during the week while the horse continued to race on Saturdays. He won for his new outfit, with Diane King riding. Soon afterwards Great Redeemer was retired to life as a show horse with Diane riding. He won more than 100 first-place ribbons in his new career.
So. Two guys go into a bar. One says to the other, wasn’t 1979 the weirdest Derby? Gimme another Bud, and see if you can top this one.
Maryjean Wall is the former turf writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader. She retired from that publication following a career that spanned four decades and included three Eclipse Awards and an AP Sports Editors Award. She holds a Ph.D. in U. S. History, has taught history at University of Kentucky, and continues to write about horse racing as a free-lancer. She has been published in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Life, Cincinnati, and Keeneland, among other publications. She has authored two books focused on horses and racing: How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders; also, Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. When she is not writing, she is photographing, always pursuing the creative muse.